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Archive for January, 2013

Another Lovely Murmuration

Via Collosal, an especially beautiful video of starlings flocking. Filmed by Neels Castillon in Marseilles. Best viewed in full screen:

For another lovely murmuration, see this post.

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Creating property rights has helped protect fisheries while making the fishing industry more efficient, according to a nice blog post by Eric Pooley of the Environmental Defense Fund (ht: Dick Thaler). Writing at the Harvard Business Review, Pooley notes the success of the “catch share” approach to fisheries management:

The Gulf of Mexico red snapper fishery, for example, was on the brink of collapse in the early part of the last decade. Fishermen were limited to 52-day seasons that were getting shorter every year. The shortened seasons, an attempt to counter overfishing, hurt fishermen economically and created unsafe “derbies” that often forced them to race into storms like the boats in The Deadliest Catch.

This short window also meant that all of the red snapper were being caught and brought to market at the same time, creating a glut that crashed prices. Many fishermen couldn’t even cover the cost of their trip to sea after selling their fish.

A decade ago, the Environmental Defense Fund began working with a group of commercial red snapper fishermen on a new and better way of doing business. Together, we set out to propose a catch share management system for snapper.

Simply put, fishermen would be allocated shares based on their catch history (the average amount of fish in pounds they landed each year) of the scientifically determined amount of fish allowed for catch each year (the catch limit). Fishermen could then fish within their shares, or quota, all year long, giving them the flexibility they needed to run their businesses.

This meant no more fishing in dangerously bad weather and no more market gluts. For the consumer, it meant fresh red snapper all year long.

After five years of catch share management, the Gulf of Mexico red snapper fishery is growing because fishermen are staying within the scientific limits. Boats that once suffered from ever-shortening seasons have seen a 60% increase in the amount of fish they are allowed to catch. Having a percentage share of the fishery means fishermen have a built-in incentive to husband the resource, so it will continue to grow.

Please read the rest of his piece for additional examples in the United States and around the world. Catch shares don’t deserve all the credit for fishery rebounds (catch limits presumably played a significant role), but they appear to be a much better way to manage limited stocks.

One small quibble: Pooley refers to catch shares as an example of behavioral economics in action. That must be a sign of just how fashionable behavioral economics–the integration of psychology into economics–has become. In this case, though, the story is straight-up economics: incentives and property rights.

For another fun take on property rights and fish, with a very different slant, consider the fight against the invasive lionfish.

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On Wednesday, the House will vote on a bill to delay the upcoming debt limit showdown. The bill includes no spending cuts, no tax increases, and no platinum coins of unusual size. Instead, it will “suspend” the debt limit through May 18 to give lawmakers time to pass a budget in each chamber. To give them extra incentive, it also includes a new twist: If they fail to pass a budget by April 15, it will withhold their pay.

Here are five things you should know about the bill.

1. The bill doesn’t just suspend the debt limit, it raises it.

Section 1(a) of the bill suspends the debt limit through May 18. You might think that the current limit would go back into effect on May 19. And it would, except for section 1(b) which increases the debt limit to reflect new debt issued between now and then.

The bill thus increases the debt limit by an amount to be determined later. That unusual structure lets lawmakers tie the debt limit increase to a specific date, rather than an amount. It also means they get to increase the debt limit, presumably by several hundred billion dollars, without having to expressly vote for such an amount.  It’s a less transparent, and therefore less painful, way to increase the debt limit.

2. Treasury can’t build up an enormous cash hoard.

In principle, Treasury could use this reprieve to build up a pile of cash before the new limit is determined on May 19. For example, Treasury could issue an extra $500 billion in debt and hold the proceeds as cash to cover deficits once the new limit is in place.

But the bill drafters already thought of that. To prevent such gaming, the bill limits the obligations that could be financed with new debt. An obligation isn’t covered “unless the issuance of such obligation was necessary to fund a commitment incurred by the Federal Government that required payment before May 19, 2013.” In short, no funny stuff.

3. Nevertheless, the bill could allow Treasury running room well beyond May 19.

We first hit the debt limit on New Year’s Eve. Since then, Treasury Secretary Geithner has raised cash by engaging in extraordinary (albeit now-familiar) measures such as stuffing IOUs into federal employee retirement accounts in place of the federal debt they own.

A big question is whether the bill would allow the Treasury Secretary to undo those extraordinary measures and reload for the next time we hit the debt limit. The folks at the Bipartisan Policy Center, who do a great job tracking the debt limit, believe that it would. If so, the bill would put off the day of debt limit reckoning well beyond May 19.

4. Because of a constitutional issue, the bill threatens to delay congressional pay, not eliminate it.

With prompting from the group No Labels, lawmakers had toyed with the idea of not paying the members of Congress if they fail to pass a budget resolution by April 15 (“No Budget, No Pay”). But that idea ran afoul of the 27th Amendment  (the weird one that was ratified in 1992 after passing Congress back in 1789). It says:

No law, varying the compensation for the services of the Senators and Representatives, shall take effect, until an election of Representatives shall have intervened.

To avoid “varying” the amount of compensation, the bill would escrow congressional pay until each chamber passes its budget or the end of the 113th Congress. In short, No Budget, No Pay Until January 2015.

5. Members of Congress don’t need to enact a budget to get paid on time.

The bill doesn’t require that lawmakers actually enact a budget. That would be a hard task, since it would require the Republican House to agree with the Democratic Senate on a budget plan.

Instead, the bill focuses on the first steps of the process, in which the House and Senate pass their own budget resolutions. If the House passes a budget, its members would get paid on schedule, and the same for the Senate (which hasn’t done a budget for several years). But there is no new penalty if the House and Senate can’t agree on a final budget.

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In high school, I learned that absolute zero (about -460° Fahrenheit or -273° Celsius) is as cold as you can get. At that point, all motion ceases, and you can’t get any colder.

So it was a bit of a head-scratcher to learn that physicists recently created a gas whose temperature is below absolute zero. Seems impossible, right?

Well, no. Turns out that the high-school definition of absolute zero doesn’t capture the modern notion of temperature. As Empirical Zeal explains, temperature isn’t only about motion, it’s about an object’s willingness to give up energy. And physicists have been creating negative-temperature objects for more than 60 years.

Measurement is a recurring theme on this blog, so I found this intriguing. All those years, and I didn’t actually know how physicists really measure temperature. But what really caught my eye is that Empirical Zeal uses some ideas from economics to explain what negative temperatures are all about.

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Using the ideas of exchange, marginal utility, and utility maximization, he illustrates how negative temperatures are like a world in which the Dalai Lama should give all his money to Warren Buffett.

I can’t do justice in an excerpt, so please click on over if you are interested.

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Ezra Klein reports an official statement from Anthony Coley, a Treasury spokesperson, killing the platinum coin strategy:

“Neither the Treasury Department nor the Federal Reserve believes that the law can or should be used to facilitate the production of platinum coins for the purpose of avoiding an increase in the debt limit.”

So R.I.P. platinum coins of  unusual size.

The administration has previously ruled out another oft-discussed debt-limit safety valve, overriding the limit based on the 14th amendment. So “Plan B” discussions will now move to two other alternatives that have been bandied about: prioritizing payments or, as Ed Kleinbard suggested the other day, issuing scrip like California did a couple years ago. Of course, issuing scrip *is* prioritizing payments, but with the added feature (or complication) of a written, transferable IOU.

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The debt limit in simpler times:

P.S. This is a repost from 2011.

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Policy wonks are debating whether a trillion-dollar platinum coin would be a clever or insane way for President Obama to play hardball with Republicans in the upcoming debt limit battle. Here’s what you should know about this crazy-sounding idea:

1.     A legal loophole gives the Treasury Secretary apparently unlimited authority to mint platinum coins.

Treasury is forbidden from printing money to cover government deficits. Treasury must issue debt, while the Federal Reserve independently controls our nation’s monetary printing press.

That is exactly as it should be. But there is an arcane exception for platinum coins. To serve coin collectors, Treasury can issue platinum coins of any denomination. That creates an intriguing loophole: Treasury could bypass the collector market and mint a trillion-dollar platinum coin. By depositing it at the Federal Reserve, Treasury could keep paying bills after we’ve fully exhausted our borrowing limit.

2.     Most observers think this is a terrible idea, but the legal arguments against it are weak at best.

A who’s who of commentators has already objected to the coin on legal, economic, political, and image grounds (see, for example, John Carney, Matt Cooper, Tyler Cowen, Kevin Drum, Jim Hamilton, Heidi Moore, and Felix Salmon). I’m no lawyer, but the legal arguments seem wholly unconvincing. The language of the statute is clear, and in any case, the executive branch gets away with expansive actions in extreme times. During the financial crisis, for example, Treasury aggressively interpreted its authorities in order to bail out GM and Chrysler and to backstop money market funds. If default became a real possibility, the same expansiveness could easily justify a platinum coin.

3.     The economic arguments against the coin are stronger but manageable.

There’s a good reason that Treasury is forbidden from printing money to pay our debts: inflation. Many economies have been ruined when profligate governments turned to printing money. But minting the platinum coin needn’t mean monetizing our debt. The Federal Reserve has ample ability to offset any inflationary impact by selling some of the trillions in Treasury securities it already owns. As long as the Fed does its job, inflation would not be a risk.

4.     The best arguments against the platinum coin involve image and politics.

Minting a trillion-dollar coin sounds like the plot of a Simpsons episode or an Austin Powers sequel. It lacks dignity. And despite modern cynicism, that means something.

It would also be premature. President Obama and the Republican and Democratic members of Congress have roughly two months to strike a debt limit deal. There is no reason to short-circuit that process, as painful as it may be, with preemptive currency minting as the now-famous #MintTheCoin petition to the White House suggests.

5.     Nonetheless the platinum coin strategy might be better than the alternatives if we reach the brink of default.

Analysts have considered a range of other options for avoiding default, including prioritizing payments, asserting the debt limit is unconstitutional, and temporarily selling the gold in Fort Knox. All raise severe practical, legal, and image problems.

In this ugly group, the platinum coin looks relatively shiny. In particular, it would be much less provocative than President Obama asserting the debt limit is unconstitutional. That nuclear option would create a political crisis, while a platinum coin could be a constructive bargaining chip. As Josh Barro notes, President Obama could offer to close the platinum coin loophole as part of a deal to raise or eliminate the debt ceiling.

6.     If necessary, Treasury should mint smaller platinum coins, not a trillion-dollar one.

A trillion-dollar coin is eye-catching and ridiculous. That’s why it’s filled the punditry void left by the fiscal cliff. But a single coin makes no policy sense. No federal transactions occur in trillion-dollar increments.

Among the largest transactions are Treasury bond auctions, which today raise about $25 billion at a time. If necessary, Treasury could issue individual $25 billion coins, each in lieu of a needed bond auction. Still ridiculous, to be sure, but less so as it would calibrate coin issuance to immediate financing needs.

Steve Randy Waldman suggests as even more granular approach: issuing coins denominated in millions not billions. Such “small” denominations would be even less ridiculous and could potentially be used in transactions with private firms, not just Fed deposits.

Of course, the best path would be a bipartisan agreement to increase the debt limit, address spending cuts, and strengthen our fiscal future, all settled before the precipice. If we reach the brink, however, minting million- or billion-dollar platinum coins would be better than default.

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My Urban Institute colleague Gene Steuerle says yes: politicians have gone too far trying to control future policies and spending.

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